Friday, October 21, 2011

Samhain, Halloween, and other things

Thanks to Thomas Cahill's book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, we're all aware how our ancestors were personally responsible from keeping the Western Hemisphere from spinning back into the primordial abyss.  Well that isn't exactly what he says, but that's my take on it.  I am always aghast when those who share our Celtic heritage are unaware of the Irish roots of Halloween.  The Irish brought Halloween to the Americas.  The Celtic calendar ends at this time of year.  The season was a celebration of harvest and a time to prepare for bringing things in- closure.  And so it also became a time for the dead.  Large bonfires would be lit and animals and humans alike would walk by them as a type of cleansing.  The spirits of ancestors would be recalled with food being placed out for them.  Of course when the Church stepped in, the old went out.  Sort of.  All Saints Day and All Souls Day were to replace the old ways, even though they never completely disappeared.

Image from Google

I attended Saint Patrick School under the instruction of the good Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.  Now it's become the fad for former Catholic school students to gather and tell horror stories of the torture chambers that the schools kept in their basements.  One friend claims his nuns performed lobotomies on students who refused to wear their uniforms to school.  Another claims one of his nuns packed heat.  They are apocryphal stories at best.  You will never hear such stories from me since I hold those women in the highest regards.

When I was in first grade my nun was Sister Julie Barbarian (a false name was used to protect the guilty).  Our classroom was in the school basement since Sister had 52 students, no exaggeration.  There was no aid in the class or break for an art or music teacher to come in.  She was stuck with us, which may have lead to the encounter I tell.  It was Halloween.  Being good Catholic boys and girls we were told to dress as our patron saint and be ready to parade around the school.  As I was ready with my sister to walk the 1.5 miles to school (today that would be child abuse).  I informed my mother I needed to dress as Saint David.  "When?" she asked.  "Now!" I replied, "Today is Halloween."  My mother took a copy of the Lowell Sun and folded it into a bizarre lump and informed me it was a crown.  I was going as King David.  I'm grateful she did not give me a loincloth and sling shot and go as young David fighting Goliath.

When I got to school there was St Francis, Saint Anthony, Saint Ann....  It looked like the hosts of heaven descended on Adams Street wearing their fathers' robes and mothers' bedsheets.  Sister looked ecstatic as we walked in.  She pointed at the folded Lowell Sun sitting on my head.  "What's that?"  she asked with her black habit looking much like a witch's outfit.  "It's a crown.  I'm King David."  I thought she would comment on how creative my crown was.  Instead she gave some sort of theology lesson that David was not a saint since the Messiah had not yet arrived and how could I be a saint if the gates of heaven had not been opened yet..............  My eyes glazed over as she went on quoting scripture, I think.  Her last words were, "Take it off."  I was crushed, until the kid after me walked by, we'll call him the sacrificial lamb.  He had on a Woolworth's skeleton costume compete with plastic mask.  You could see her take a deep breath.  "I'm a skeleton," came the muffled voice from behind the mask.  I've heard that certain sounds can break glass, and that the blasts of trumpets felled Jericho's walls.  The sound that came out of Sister's mouth was akin to that.  Her final words were, "Take it off."  "I can't," said the skeleton mask.  "You can't or you won't?" asked the good Sister, now looking more like a witch.  "I don't have anything underneath here," retorted the skeleton.  While the rest of the class paraded around the school ,Skeleton Boy and King David stayed in the classroom eating candy corn. 

Sister Julie is now counted among the saints.  The whereabouts of Skeleton Boy remains unknown.


  1. Good story. I think I had the same sister (in 1960) at St. Patrick's, first grade. She appears in a short story I wrote (Smokestack Lightning) called The Powers of Heaven. I don't have great memories of first grade there; however, I had Sister Francis St. Michael in second grade, and for the first time I began to feel good about going to school. She was wonderful. By the way, David, what's your full name?

    Steve O'Connor

  2. Yes, Steve, I had Francis St Michael, Margaret Paul, Loretta Francis, Agnes Mary, William Julieanne, and Mary Jean. All great women committed to their mission.

    BTW the last name is McKean